By Mary Park Byrne
It doesn’t take a scientist to know that pets make humans feel good; anyone who’s ever stroked a dog’s fur or felt a cat’s thrumming purr knows this. Science can, however, tell us how and why pets can be therapeutic. Just 15 minutes bonding with an animal sets off a chemical chain reaction in the brain, lowering levels of the fight-or-flight hormone cortisol and increasing production of the feel-good hormone serotonin. The result: heart rate, blood pressure and stress levels immediately drop. Over the long term, pet and human interactions can lower cholesterol levels, fight depression and may even help protect against heart disease and stroke. This is why pets for the elderly can be so beneficial.
One of the biggest concerns of allowing seniors to bring their beloved pets to assisted living communities is that the program needs to ensure the pets’ well-being. Duvall, Washington veterinarian, Dr. Kevin Sievers, comments on the importance of the pets’ needs: “Humans benefit greatly from the companionship of a pet. An animal in the life of a senior can give them new meaning and improve their well-being, so it is important for seniors to have a pet in their living environment. I also think it’s very important to remember the health needs of the pets. Seniors can forget to properly medicate or even feed their pets. Senior living communities need to be able to help their residents care for their pets to ensure the health and happiness of both the seniors and their pets.” So the key to an overall healthy relationship for both the senior and the pet is to have a pet friendly assisted living community that can ensure proper care for the pet, if the owner is not capable.
Fortunately, many senior living communities are on board with this service and even have a Pet Care Coordinator at their communities to help make sure all the pets are well cared for and are up-to-date on vaccines and veterinary care. This ensures the pets are groomed, fed, walked and happy when they otherwise wouldn’t be if the senior is not able to perform these responsibilities.
For seniors, the benefits of a furry companion can be life-changing. Walking a dog is great cardiovascular exercise, but just the simple act of caring for a pet-petting, brushing, feeding-provides both mild activity and a means to stay engaged with the world. Pets can make the elderly feel needed, and that feeling can translate into a greater sense of purpose and self-worth. During what can be a lonely time of life, the unconditional love of a cherished dog or cat can be a bridge to more socialization with others, lowered stress, mental stimulation and a renewed interest in life.
In the past, a move to a nursing home or retirement community meant giving up this important bond with the animal world. While many retirement communities, assisted living facilities and nursing homes still don’t allow pets, it’s great that many of these assisted living communities have decided to integrate pets into their communities, as the pet therapy benefits to the elderly is overwhelming.
“We don’t just let them in,” says Steve Winner, co-founder of Silverado Senior Living with a chuckle, “we require them. Pets are an integral part of what we do.” From the start, Silverado has embraced the power of pets and pet therapy for the elderly to make happier lives for those affected by dementia.
Assisted living communities in the Silverado network not only have dogs, cats and fish on site, but also miniature horses, llamas, chinchillas, and even baby kangaroos. “We ask senior residents to help us care for them,” says Winner. “The responsibility of caring for other living beings builds self-esteem.”
Pets are not only beneficial to their owners, but have also proven to have positive effects on other senior residents at assisted living facilities. “Sometimes new residents can be withdrawn and not very communicative, and it’s the first interaction with an animal that draws them out,” says Winner. “They’re pulled out of their shell by the pets.”
Pet therapy for the elderly has also proven to be a powerful tool for what’s known as “Sundowners Syndrome” evening periods of increased agitation and confusion in those with Alzheimer’s. Animals’ non-verbal communication and profound acceptance can be soothing for those with difficulty using language; some may even connect with memories of their own treasured pets.
The San Diego Humane Society’s Pet-Assisted Therapy Program has noticed how even the most profoundly affected patients have displayed improved appetite, more social interaction and tactile and cognitive stimulation after interactions with pets. “Animals provide unconditional love and emotional support in a way that is unparalleled. Our Pet-Assisted Therapy program brings the joys of animals to people who are otherwise unable to have an animal in their life, such as those living in facilities such as convalescent homes, hospitals, mental health centers, children’s homes and juvenile detention centers,” says Judith Eisenberg, Pet-Assisted Therapy Coordinator for the San Diego Humane Society. “What an animal can give and teach is a powerful source of healing and personal connection.” In this way, pet therapy is an excellent way to provide an extra dimension of happiness to senior citizens.
We encourage you to contact communities individually to learn about their pet policy and find out if there are weight or breed restrictions as well as community pet care programs.
Update: January 2018